Nancy Balbirer, ALMOST ROMANCE

Nancy Balbirer, ALMOST ROMANCE

Actress and writer Nancy Balbirer joins Zibby to talk about her latest memoir, Almost Romance, which tells her incredible true love story. The two discuss what it was like to write a very happy story while living through the tumult of 2020, how much they appreciate the editor they share, and where Nancy plans to take this project next. Nancy also shares what it’s like to be recognized from your New York Times Vows column and why she decided to make the shift from acting to writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nancy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Almost Romance: A Memoir.

Nancy Balbirer: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here and great to meet you, Zibby.

Zibby: It’s great to meet you too. Tell listeners what your memoir is about.

Nancy: Almost Romance is a memoir which tells the story of the thirty-two-year almost-romance I shared with one of my dearest friends and how we were able to turn it into a real romance with the help of the Grace and Frankie writers’ room and the denizens of a fabled-but-cursed Manhattan apartment building. It’s a real-life romantic comedy.

Zibby: Love it. Back up. I want you to talk about how you even got here. Your acting and all that career started early. I saw on Instagram, your little clip, which is so funny, of you kissing. Go back. Where did you grow up? How did you get into acting and writing? Take me from the beginning because the memoir, of course, is towards the second half more.

Nancy: Yes, but it does traverse thirty-two years. You do get a little hit of the acting career as well because that’s how Howie, my romantic hero, and I met. We met at NYU Tisch Drama School. I grew up in a small town in Connecticut. I was born in New York, grew up in a small town in Connecticut. I acted from the time I was a child as a child performer and went, at seventeen, back into New York to go to NYU, which is where, as I said, I met Howie. I was an actress. I did television. I did stage. Did a little film. What happened was — I thought that this was it. This was my career. It was my love. It was my passion. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Then one day, I went into an audition for a project called The Untitled Luke Perry Project. For some reason, despite that title, I was stunned to see Luke Perry sitting behind the audition table, that Flashdance-y audition table. Despite the fact that I’d been with other much even more starry people in other rooms, this rattled me. I just had an off day. The feedback that my manager or agent gave me at the time was that I had bored Luke Perry. This made her drop me. Yes. I was thirty-one years old or something like that and knocking around Hollywood, newly married in my first marriage. I did not know what I was going to do. At that time, there was no cute things like YouTube or Instagram where you could just put yourself out there as the kids do now. The only thing that you could do to procure other representation was to get into a show.

I had to write myself a show, which was called I Slept with Jack Kerouac, which was about a jazz musician — this was a true story — a jazz musician I had dated and fallen madly in love with and who dumped me because he said he was the reincarnation of Jack Kerouac and, as such, couldn’t be in a committed relationship. I know. I have a talent for getting pretentious dudes. Anyway, so I wrote this play. It was a solo show. I performed it. What happened in the process was, it was a success, but I fell in love, surprisingly, at least to me, with writing. It began my writing career. As my writing career started to become more fulsome, I had less and less interest in the acting part. When I got pregnant with my daughter, I realized, because I had all this time to just reflect — at that time, I was just doing voiceover work because I was heavily pregnant. I realized that the truth of it was that, when I got very, very honest and quiet with myself, that my favorite part of acting was the storytelling part, was being a part of the story and, certainly, the connection with the audience. After that, I just couldn’t imagine going back to acting, not in the way that I had been doing. The day-to-day of being actress is not actually acting. You’re going around from audition to audition saying, pick me. Like me. Whereas writing, even if you don’t have a publishing contract, you can be writing. You can be trying to achieve that. Really, when I started doing it, it was just so clearly the right fit, the right relationship for me, my relationship to that career. I think a lot of the themes in my life are about finding the right fit for myself. Sometimes that doesn’t happen in the “30 Under 30” category.

Zibby: Yes. It’s hard because when you’re under thirty, you’re still changing. Whatever fits, it might not continue to fit if you’re still morphing yourself.

Nancy: Yes. Then there’s also the attendant pressure that comes with that. It’s like, well, I’ve set myself up for this thing. I must stay in this thing, if you achieve something in it. It’s part of our culture a little bit. Americans really want you to have an idea of who you are, and you stick with that thing. You go to one college. You have to know what your major is. It’s all very linear. I just don’t know that it’s always linear for everybody.

Zibby: It definitely wasn’t linear for me.

Nancy: No, it wasn’t. You’re a perfect example of that.

Zibby: Linear is overrated. Who needs it?

Nancy: I believe in serpentine, circuitous.

Zibby: Why not? What’s that song? God bless the winding road that led me straight to you, or whatever.

Nancy: “The Long and Winding Road.” Beatles.

Zibby: That too. Yes, of course. Tell me, then, about your first two books, which look so good. Now I have to go back and read those.

Nancy: My first book, Take Your Shirt Off and Cry, is actually a memoir chronicle of my acting career and what I learned being in the blistering trenches of showbusiness as a near-fame performer but not a famous performer. Really, it’s also very much a deep dive, an exploration of what it is to be a woman actor. This is years before — it was very avant-garde for the time. It was pre-Me Too, pre-Harvey Weinstein revelations, pre-all of that. I certainly had some stories in there — again, my take on things is humor, largely, but it’s not all humor. It’s not like I’m a stand-up, all that funny-all-the-time stuff. It’s got some gravitas to it. That’s what that book’s about. Then A Marriage in Dog Years is a memoir of the year I tried to save my dog and my first marriage. It goes from one Independence Day to the next. My dog was dying, but I didn’t know it at the time. My marriage was dying, and I also didn’t know that at the time. They were very deeply intertwined because we’d gotten the dog as a sort of marital wedding gift to each other. So many couples do that when they get married. Not necessarily ready for the baby yet, but let’s do something that needs our taking care of. That’s what that’s about. It’s an exploration of loss and grief. Most significantly, it’s about surrender and how I’d always believed that surrender was giving up. There is letting go, but there is a great deal of wisdom and strength in doing so. I had to go through a lot to learn that. That’s what that’s about.

Zibby: Then for this memoir, when did you know that you had to write about this, or did you kind of know in the back of your head starting at the very first meeting that you write in the scene where you’re like, but I feel that way too? When did you know it was a book?

Nancy: I had an inkling when we got married. The New York Times did one of their Vows columns that comes out in the Style section on Sundays. We got this super intense response to it from people we knew, but also from people that we didn’t. In fact, the first time I ever met Jane Fonda was at the season two Grace and Frankie premiere party. When my husband introduced me to her, she said, “Oh, my god, I just read the Vows column.” In one hand, she was holding her Coton de Tuléar dog and in the other, a rolled-up copy of the Vows. She was like, “I had to bring it to Lily because it made me cry.” I was like, what? This is the first thing that you’re saying when I meet you? It was insane. I thought, wow. People kept saying, I really love this story. I thought, that’s so nice, but it’s so not the whole story. How could you get a whole story into a column? There’s all the nuance and the back-and-forth of it all. Cut to a couple years later. A Marriage in Dog Years had just come out. Carmen Johnson, my editor, and I were sitting down to lunch at the Breslin Bar.

Over some very delicious Caesar salads, because they are truly sublime there, she said, “What do you want to do next?” I said, “Remember the story in that Vows column?” She said, “Yeah.” I said, “I think that could make for a very interesting memoir because it’s actually a super happy story. There’s a lot of back-and-forth in it and certainly painful times, but it’s, by and large, a very uplifting, hopeful, joyous story, and not typical romantic comedy because it deals with people who are pushing fifty or have just crossed over the line fifty.” She said, “Listen, I love that story, but what makes it a book and not a column?” Totally extemporaneously, because she asked me that question and I had to answer it, I had to answer it for myself as well, and right there in the Breslin, I just was able to pitch it out to her. I saw it completely. I saw that it was in three parts. I saw that it started with this email that I wrote to him, that that would be the prelude. I knew exactly what the first line would be, sitting at Russian Samovar. It was just so clear to me. At the end of it, she said, “Yeah, it’s a book.” Then of course, I had to go write it. That’s a whole other thing. That’s how I knew.

Zibby: As we’d talked about before, Carmen Johnson is also my editor at Little A for my memoir. I am just over the moon. Just could not say enough nice things about her. She’s so great.

Nancy: She is so wonderful. The whole process, having been through it with a different company and going through now two books with Little A, it is night and day in the way they do things, the model of it all. You are so much more empowered. I’m really happy for you because they’re fantastic, especially Carmen.

Zibby: Amazing. So then you went and wrote it. What was that like?

Nancy: The book was mostly written during the very darkest days of the pandemic, the beginning of the lockdown. Writing is always navigating the challenges of — particularly if you’re a mom and a wife and you’ve got other things going on, it’s always hard to navigate all the things that you have, all the things you’re juggling. Then when you add into that mix, the fact that your writing space is now being taken over by Zoom high school and by husband’s Zoom writers’ room — comedy writers are loud people. Then the dog barking at the extra Amazon deliveries, it made for a soup that was really, really thick and not the easiest. Then you compound all of that with the ADD of it all. What’s going to happen today? Just being completely freaked out and afraid about all of the things that were going on, the civil unrest, the pandemic, the political unrest, all of it made for something that was really hard to do. When I finally was able to actually bring my attention to this time that I’m writing about, the time that’s the present day in the book, and I was able to be once again with Howie in that glorious moment when we realized, oh, my god, it’s always been you, or when I was able to swim in the pool of the past with my extraordinary neighbors at London Terrace Gardens and be with them again or my delightful daughter when she was the adorable eight and nine-year-old that she is in the story, I found that it was such a tremendous escape for me to be able to be there that it became this joy to write it, to tell this story to other people who might need hope or an escape.

Zibby: Yes, anything that can get you through all of that. I loved how you just described it as a thick soup to get through. I love that visual. I think I called it a slog. I’m more like in a Tough Mudder competition like you’re going through sludge. A nice bowl of soup, that sounds much better, so I’m going to go with that.

Nancy: There’s so many ingredients. Everything’s been dumped into it. It’s like, how to parse this? What is the thing that’s making it difficult? I’d have these Zoom therapy sessions and be going through with my shrink, what am I doing? I have to concentrate. I have to focus. I had to get a delay. I had to get an extension. The slowdown of that, also, the slowdown of life really gave me something that I actually needed in my creative process. I think what comes, also, from acting for me is this need to be liked and to be a good girl and get everything right. Sometimes that doesn’t necessarily serve your work or the project. I needed to take a little bit more time, and that was okay, actually. It was fine.

Zibby: That’s good. This feels very cinematic, Nancy Meyers’ movie-esque. Is there news of an adaptation yet? Are you working on that?

Nancy: We are working on that. I say we because this is a project that my husband and I are very excited to adapt together. We’ve already started that process. We will see. There was this new newsletter that’s part of The Ankler. It’s called The Optionist. It was selected for that just a couple days before it was published. It just came out two days ago. A couple days before that, he selected it as a book that he’s — he said, “Meryl, call your agents.” It’s really so great.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Wow, I have to start following that, The Optionist.

Nancy: Oh, yeah. It’s brand-new. It’s super cool.

Zibby: Okay, done. I’m always interested in what’s going on. Not that I’m always the best judge, but some books, I’m just like, I have to be with these characters again in another way. They’re just calling out for more airtime or brain-time or whatever it is.

Nancy: I have been hearing that from a lot of readers DMing me saying that they just can’t seem to let go of these people. It’s such an extraordinary feeling. I have this thing where the reader is very present for me. Again, that might come from the theater. There isn’t a word in anything I write, but especially this book, that hasn’t been read aloud by me. Everything is read aloud because I want the reader to feel like we’re together. We’re friends. I’m telling you this story that you’re kind of not going to believe, but here it is.

Zibby: That’s the best way to experience it. Obviously, there are different types of books. Some are there for the form and function. To just get a good story, that’s really what people — everybody’s dying for a good story. They want to escape, like you writing into your — people just need that, especially now. When you have a good one, you have to do it, which is awesome. I also think that there’s a real lack of narratives about women of a certain age or couples of a certain age. I feel like there’s a huge spotlight on this empty-stage area, if you will, where people should be standing. We’re just like, where are the characters? What’s going on? So many people are going through so much that is not being written about or thought about, so much divorce, so many people meeting up again later. There’s so much opportunity. I think that people are able to see themselves in your writing and feel very understood and validated that they aren’t getting from other places.

Nancy: Absolutely. There’s a huge void. Where are the women who are approaching fifty? In Just Like That, there are some, but it’s a very small amount. We need to see more representation of this. I believed that love was a parade that had passed me by. I wasn’t mad at that. I was like, okay, I had that in my life. I’ve been through the mill love and relationship-wise. I had a very full life. I was a single mother. I had a career. I had a wonderful community. It’s all very nice, but not very good. I think that people really need to know about their tremendous potential for love and for joy and how that goes on past whatever expiration date you believe in. The messaging is all about age-defying. It’s like, what about age-embracing? What about being a person whose sexiest decade is yet to come, or most fulfilling decade is yet to come? I think especially women need to hear that and to know that that is true. If I can be a part of shedding light on that or pulling the curtain back on that, I couldn’t be more psyched.

Zibby: I couldn’t agree more. That’s amazing. What is next? Are you going to do another memoir? What are you thinking? Aside from the adaptation.

Nancy: I gravitate toward memoir. I do, but I have some ideas for fiction. I see these things as very — you employ the same tools, toolbox, techniques as a memoirist as you do a fiction writer, and vice versa. People in fiction — my husband uses things I say all the time on his shows. I have some ideas of things that have been occurring to me lately that I need to explore. I think there might be a novel or some short stories. I’m also obsessed with short story and would like to explore some of that as well.

Zibby: That sounds amazing. Love it. What advice would you give for an aspiring writer?

Nancy: Never give up. Something that I have to do — this is three books later. I still am afraid somebody’s going to find out I didn’t go to school for writing or say, oh, she’s just a dumb actress, how could she write something? I have to trick myself. This is what everybody should do if they’re plagued with performance anxiety around writing or feeling too self-critical. I do a thing when I’m beginning any project, including this book, where I begin in the notes app on my phone or laptop. I write there because the inner critics can’t find me. I write there for a long time until I have enough that I cut and paste it into a Word document and I know that I’m off to the races. Do whatever you need to do to trick yourself into, I’m not writing, I’m just jotting, whatever it is. Dictate it to yourself. Whatever it is, just don’t give up. When you have a story to tell, you must tell it.

Zibby: Love that. Amazing advice. I’ve been using more Google Docs, to be honest with you. It’s something new. The time it takes for Word to open my computer, I’m like, I should just do something else. It’s easier for me to get into a Google Doc. Now I have my kids doing their own little stories in their own little Google Docs. We sit around and all write onto our Google Docs.

Nancy: That’s so cute. I love that. Now you’ve given me something. I have to try that. I have to try a Google Doc.

Zibby: Then it’s any computer. You can always find it. Never mind, this is a silly conversation. I’ve really liked it. Psychologically, I don’t know why, it makes me feel like it’s less of a big deal or something.

Nancy: That’s the thing, though. It’s whatever you have to do. It’s whatever it takes to get you through the writing day. You just have to get it down. It’s none of your business to judge it. Just get it down.

Zibby: Just get it down. Easier said than done. I’m glad you got it down. Thank you for coming on to talk about Almost Romance. Where can everybody find you?

Nancy: I’m very easy to reach on Instagram, @NancyBalbirer, also on my website, I answer everything. I may not do it right away if I’m super slammed, but I answer everything. I love it. I’ve been getting so many fantastic messages and so much love. I cannot tell you how much I love my readers. It just gives me so much joy to know that things are resonating, that I’m making connections. It’s everything.

Zibby: Aw, that’s amazing. It’s all worth it.

Nancy: It’s all worth it, all the pulling the hair out, the hiding from the inner critics. They can’t find me. It’s all worth it.

Zibby: One of these days, I hope that you and Carmen and I can go out to lunch or something.

Nancy: To the Monkey Bar or the Breslin Bar. That’s our places.

Zibby: Sounds good. Thanks so much, Nancy. It was so great to get to know you a little bit today.

Nancy: So great.

Zibby: Thank you. That was fun.

Nancy: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thanks so much.

Zibby: Of course. My pleasure. Buh-bye.

Nancy: Buh-bye.

Nancy Balbirer, ALMOST ROMANCE

ALMOST ROMANCE by Nancy Balbirer

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